Jacques Ardisson, owner of the new LouLou Le Petit Bistro in downtown Miami, is a man who doesn't mind swimming against the tide. After all, Ardisson has installed LouLou in the same space where earlier this year he closed his Indochine Asian Bistro (which concentrated mostly on sushi and Thai). In recent years, old-style French restaurants across America have pulled shutters down for the last time — and been replaced by modern Asian places.
The bistro concept is more popular than ever, used by all manner of ethnic restaurants to denote a menu of casual foods served with a smart array of wines and beers. More often than not, the B-word is prefaced by contemporary to differentiate this new style of informal eatery from the dark, snail-riddled places of yore. Because though some folks might say escargots, croque-monsieurs, and duck à l'orange are so timeless and classic as to never fade from fashion, these dishes are in fact receding from the American gastronomic Zeitgeist. At least this is true when said cuisine is presented in the antiquated manner found at LouLou.
Jacques and daughter/partner Carla Lou (nickname "LouLou") plaster words such as organic, local, and sustainable on their shop window and menus — and the greens used in salads certainly appear to be — but the food here seems lost in another time and place. This is especially true of the entrées. "La bavette" brought a plump, red, juicy hunk of chewy flank steak so redolent of potent red-wine marinade that it hardly tasted like beef. A heavy brown sauce loaded with shallots and onions was reminiscent of thickened soupe à l'oignon; the onions and marinade battled it out on the palate, but there were no winners.
Another dense sauce, this one spiked with vinegar and sweetened with raspberries, pooled pale-pink slices of a small magret duck breast. The bird was flavorful, but not enough fat was rendered from the unctuous skin. An accompanying stew of French lentils, densely steeped in vegetable-and-dry-herb notes, might have passed muster in front of a fireplace on a snowy evening.
We were set to order pork loin with "white wine, ketchup, and honey" on our return, but it had been replaced on what has thus far been an evolving bill of fare. À la carte sides, including a ratatouille, were likewise absent by the second visit. "Pan-seared" Scottish salmon remained on the revised menu, even though it came grilled. The fish flaked into fresh, moist bites; large, grilled slices of fennel and yellow squash were charred, dry, and not quite cooked through. Incidentally: Because the bistro touts its "local" cred, why not serve seafood from a closer source than Scotland?
The house burger is made of ground brisket, and it was delicious. Leafy greens, a ripe tomato slice, and a ramekin of cold, caramelized onions accompanied the thick patty, which was plunked onto a softly grilled brioche bun. The charred flavor from the grill flattered the meat much more than the aforementioned vegetables. With its crisp exterior and well-seasoned interior, the burger would have been nearly perfect if not overcooked to medium (it was requested medium-rare). French fries alongside were gorgeously golden and cleanly fried to a crystalline snap.
A well-prepared country pâté is one dish that might indeed prove to be timeless — especially when delectably composed of coarse pork and duck and interspersed with squares of fat, as is done at LouLou. One slice cut into two triangles is served with cornichons and niçoise olives; bread for the spread comprised left-over slices of crusty, predinner sourdough.
Likewise garnering praise at the table was French onion soup, featuring a thick coat of Asiago cheese lathered atop a light but bright onion-stocked broth. But then there was the pizzaladière, a regrettable new addition to the menu. When prepared freshly, this southern French specialty is a savory tart topped with darkly and sweetly caramelized onions, anchovies (sometimes anchovy paste), and niçoise olives. LouLou's reheated rendition tasted very old — the brittle crust partially burned and the topping inedibly salty. Carla Lou saw that we had hardly touched the pizzaladière (and likely witnessed its sad state). Without saying anything, she removed the charge from our bill.
Octopus à l'escabèche (cooked and marinated in olive oil, vegetables, and thyme), served "on a bed of beets," induced visions of, well, bite-size pieces of octopus and beets. Instead we received a mound of salad greens dressed in Dijon vinaigrette, laid atop carpaccio-thin slices of red and yellow beets, and draped with carpaccio-thin slices of octopus. The leafy nature of the starter sort of made the "LouLou salad" we'd ordered superfluous. That batch of greens came with pale tomato slices, pine nuts, pale pieces of chopped "pancetta" that looked to be either old bacon or old pancetta, and three reheated phyllo purses filled with goat cheese.
Crème brûlée brought velvety custard beneath a pale and wispy sugar crust that should have been more darkly caramelized to provide a slightly bitter contrast to the sweet cream. A fresh, delectable, wheaty crêpe spread with Nutella is the better bet. Molten faux soufflé is likewise offered, but this is a French bistro: Why not serve a real soufflé?
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Ardisson's friend Sébastien Verrier, the former longtime sommelier at Palme d'Or at the Biltmore, has composed a smart and appealing wine list. A majority of the 30-plus bottles wear French labels and carry flavor notes and price points that pair well with the casual cuisine.
The décor matches the mood as well. The left side of the rectangular space is taken up with a red wall adorned with framed mirrors marked with drink specials — below which are straight-backed, cushionless wooden booths that start out mildly uncomfortable and become more so over time. The opposite side of the room features a cool little full-service bar up front and a glassed-in kitchen running to the back.
LouLou exudes an unpretentious neighborhood bistro feel — a place to perhaps linger (but not in those booths) over pâté, salad, maybe a burger or some onion soup, and a well-chosen glass of wine. Much of the rest of the menu needs to be sharpened. Because though you might get away with middling Asian bistro food, these days middling French bistro fare is simply not what the times demand.